Tuesday Tips: The Backpedal Basics, Presented by Spin Ultimate

Is your game being limited by the ways you can move on the field?

The United States' Codi Wood tries to get past Italy's Simone Gasperini at the WFDF U24 World Championships.
The United States’ Codi Wood tries to get past Italy’s Simone Gasperini at the 2017 WFDF U24 World Championships. Photo: Kingsley Flett — Ultiworld

This article is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate!

Movement is key in ultimate, especially on defense, when a mere second’s response or reaction can be the difference between a block or a goal. There are many aspects to it: focus, speed, endurance, power, acceleration, and footwork. Moving forward and moving laterally are key components of ultimate and usually get the most attention in terms of training, physical preparation, and practice.

Keeping your body under control while moving backward is just as important. An excellent athlete should be able to control their body fluidly moving backward almost as well as forward, whether this is during angled defense downfield, adjusting on a mark, or setting up a cut in a unique way.

Much of the time, however, athletes can’t do this. In fact, it is fair to say that most people backpedal with only 50% of their normal balance, speed, and confidence. While it’s true that our bodies aren’t meant to move in a backwards direction as well as forward, it is also true that there is potential here to be unlocked. Failing to tap into this is a waste of power and potential because by keeping your back to the empty field or least-threatened space, you can better keep that perfect defensive ultimate position, able to see both the disc and your opponent.

This is an area where an advantage can be gained. Specifically seek out situations to use the backpedal in games, find ways to appropriately train and prepare for it, and master the backpedal basics to elevate your skills over your opponents.

Backpedaling Situations

People don’t tend to train as much for backpedaling in ultimate because, most of the time, athletes can do without developing the skill. Unlike, say, a hockey player who must be able to skate backwards effortlessly on defense, or a cornerback in football who must be able to keep a receiver in front, ultimate players can usually turn quickly enough and accelerate fast enough to adjust on defense and make a smooth recovery. As we all know, turning the defender’s hips is also a great way for offensive players to get open. As a result, be on the lookout for situations where backpedaling can help you succeed.

On Defense

Opportunities to use backpedal technique:

  • Adjusting on the mark1 to take away a throwing threat
  • Playing in a zone (especially a deep) to keep players in front of you while still seeing the field
  • Playing off-handler, or up-the-line handler, defense to keep your body between a player and the strike space or live side
  • Downfield against a cutter in one-on-one matchups.
    • This is the trickiest time to backpedal because of all the open space and multiple cutting lane avenues for the offense. As a result, it can also be the most effective when done successfully.
    • A great downfield defender can run semi-laterally and backwards, during a deep cut or set up, keeping both the disc and the cutter in view. This can be absolutely devastating to an opponent who will not know how to respond or where to cut next and will usually just go deep or clear.

On Offense

The situations for backpedaling are less common on offense, as you have more chances to run laterally or at an angle full speed. But backpedaling can be useful in situations like:

  • Executing drives and feints as an off-handler attempting to get separation space for a swing (picture driving up a few hard steps and then backpedaling for space)
  • Setting up a cut, most often used in a stutter-step (driving one direction, hesitating or backpedaling, then driving again).

Once you start looking for these situations and trying them out, you’ll find they pop up far more often than the casual observer might notice.

Backpedaling Training

Just like any good aspect of ultimate, backpedaling will require training to master the skill.

In fact, much of the normal aspects of training for cutting will need to be done, but simply in reverse. For example, footwork and speed, critical in forward or lateral cutting, will need to be practiced for backwards movement.

Muscle strength for explosion and endurance during sustained points will need to be honed. This is a time to target muscles that aren’t ordinarily focused on. Instead of power lifts for quads and glutes, work on strength and flexibility in your hamstrings and calves.

Here are a few things you can do to improve backpedaling outside of practice:

  • Cone cutting or footwork drills, with emphasis on backwards movement and staying low
  • Forwards-to-backwards shuttle runs (sprint a distance, backpedal back, repeat)
  • Muscle building of hamstrings (good-mornings, deadlifts, SLDL) and calves (calf raises, dot jumps, jump rope)
  • Improvement of flexibility (through yoga, concentrated stretching in weak areas, band usage)
  • Increasing foot speed and coordination through ladder work or obstacle course while backpedaling

Backpedaling Basics

Most of all, seek out opportunities to develop backpedaling at full speed in game and practice situations. This will better align to ultimate outcomes and encourage realistic training.

Here are some basics for form and function when playing ultimate and attempting to use a backpedal:

  • Stay low: important for balance and speed
  • Head level and high over the chest: the advantage of the backpedal is that you can see what’s in front of you, keeping your back to the empty field. Don’t waste that advantage by looking down or over your shoulder too often. Practice keeping your head steady and on your target while moving full speed
  • Quick short arm motions: ever try to run without using your arms? It’s the same for backwards movement
  • Quick steps and short steps: good for changing direction quickly and keeping balance
  • Stay focused: when backpedaling it’s easy to have a moment of panic or unusual fatigue, to want to turn or stand up. Giving in is the worst thing you can do, especially on defense, as it creates a perfect opening for your opponent to exploit. Practice pushing through the unique pain of backwards movement and trusting your game instincts to know where the players and disc are positioned.

Overall, it can be summed up in three keys: stay quick, stay low, and stay disciplined. Just as with offensive movement, these keys work together and are good athletic positioning and balance, allowing for quick bursts of speed, immediate changes of direction, and powerful body acceleration. And just like forward movement, they need to be trained and prepared for.

Don’t be like the average player. Think about and prepare for the backpedal and use it in your game whenever you can.

  1. the triangle progression specifically 

  1. Alex Rummelhart

    Alex "UBER" Rummelhart is an Ultiworld reporter. He majored in English at the University of Iowa, where he played and captained IHUC. He lives and teaches in Chicago, Illinois, where he has played for several ultimate teams, including the Chicago Wildfire and Chicago Machine. Alex loves writing of all types, especially telling interesting and engaging stories. He is the author of the novel The Ultimate Outsider, one of the first fictional works ever written about ultimate.

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